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Deccan Herald » Spectrum » Detailed Story
The best of friends
Veerendra P M
They eat together, they bathe together, they grow together and even play together. Thats the bond they share between them - elephants and mahouts. Explore the magical bond between the giant beast and its caretaker.

When the news of elephant-human conflict are often heard, Sakrebailu village in Shimoga district scripts a different story altogether. Especially when it comes to the special bond shared by elephants and their mahouts and kavadis. The bond with the wild has stretched to many generations in the families of mahouts and kavadis.

During colonial rule, forests in Malnad were major sources of timber for railway and other projects of the Raj. Elephants which were caught in khedda operations at Kakanakote and such other places in Coorg were brought to Malnad to transport wooden logs. These elephants were stationed at Bhadra reserve forest. Along with elephants came the mahouts and kavadis and they settled down here. In 1955, during the construction of a reservoir across Bhadra river, the elephant camp was shifted to Sakrebailu. The village, located on the bank of River Tunga and covered with thick forest, served as an ideal locale for the purpose.

While mahouts are more like drivers of the vehicle as they ride pachyderms, kavadis are like conductors as they assist mahouts. Actually speaking, most mahouts and kavadis are from Bangladesh and were used by Mughals in khedda operations. After the disintegration of the Mughal empire, many moved downward towards South. While some were employed by the Maharajah of Mysore and later by the British Raj, post-independence they became the staff of the Department of Forest and Wildlife. The language spoken by these families is a curious mixture of Urdu, Bengali and Kannada and elephants in the camps respond to commands issued in Bengali only!

Mahouts and kavadis begin their day’s work at 5.30 am when they enter the forest, take the elephant to the river bank, give it a bath, feed it and by 11 am all the elephants are sent back to the forest to graze. Again, at 4 pm, they go to the forest to ensure that the animals haven’t strayed into the fields.

The following day, mahouts and kavadis begin their search for the animal from the spot they had released it the previous day. They trace the animal by following the marks of chains. While some follow the pugmark, most mahouts are so sharp that they trace the animal by following its feeding habits and excreta.

Good friends

Elephants enjoy an intimate relationship with their mahouts and respond to their calls. Bathing of elephants is a treat that children of mahouts and kavadis do not want to miss. They not only help the elders in their job, but also learn the basics of the trade and by the time they are 18, they will be in capable enough to handle the elephants independently. Though it takes over six months for an elephant to get accustomed to its mahout and kavadi, the bond is for life-time.

Mahouts and kavadis in the place have interesting tales to relate. Wazir Saab, an octogenarian in the camp, recollects participating in a khedda operation near Chamarajanagar along with his grandfather when he was just a kid. “I was a six-year-old kid then. Much has changed now as the cup method has replaced khedda and with the advent of tranquillisers, catching elephants is no longer a thrilling experience,” says Wazir.

“Elephants are our land and asset as we don’t have any other means of income,” says Hanu Mian, another mahout.

However, many mahouts and kavadis do not want the next generation to take the ‘ankusha’ due to the risks involved in the job. In the last two decades, elephants in Sakrebailu have attacked and killed seven mahouts and a villager. Last month, Bomma, a kavadi, was attacked by Ranga, a tusker, in the forest. Rajendra, another tusker in the camp, attacked a vehicle near Gajanur in May this year.

“Elephants are obedient only in the camp and when we enter the forest to take them back to the camp, they behave differently. Their body language tends to turn wild in the forest and it is difficult to bring them back to the camp. Risks are more in the rainy season as it is difficult to track their movements. Tuskers are wild and aggressive during the season of reproduction too,” says a mahout.

While mahouts and jamedars are considered as ‘C’ group employees, kavadis are considered as ‘D’ group employees and are paid accordingly. Their eligibility for compensation for death at work site is Rs 1 lakh and both mahouts and kavadis feel that the risk coverage is just not sufficient. As many as 15 mahouts, 2 jamedars and 1 kavadi are working as regular employees in the camp. The plight of about 19 mahouts and kavadis who are working for daily wages is miserable as they are being paid a paltry sum as wage and they don’t have the risk coverage also.

The Sakrebailu camp enjoys the distinction of being the only place in the entire State where elephants are disciplined. The services of mahouts and kavadis from Sakrebailu are availed during Dasara for the same purpose. Sakrebailu is also the training place for rogue elephants as mahouts in the place are experts in disciplining the wild. Ganesha, an elephant from a religious institute in Davangere district, Aishwarya from Humcha Math and Rajendra from Kollur are being disciplined at Sakrebailu. Manikanta, an elephant from a temple in Bangalore, and a baby elephant from Uttara Kannada district are new guests at the camp. While Manikanta is rehabilitated at Sakrebailu as per the Court orders, the new born baby elephant from Uttara Kannada district, found deserted by the herd, was sent to Sakrebailu and tentatively named Durga, as it was found on Durgashtami this year.

Sakrebailu can actually be developed into an attractive tourist destination with proper campaigning. At present, only some tourist agencies are bringing their customers to Sakrebailu.

Elephants’ Day Out

Elephants’ Day, organised every year by the Department of Forest and Wildlife at Navodaya School grounds in Gajanur, adjacent to Sakrebailu, to mark Wildlife Week, is proving to be a great crowd puller. Athletics and other sporting events are organised for elephants on the occasion.

At the event this year, a command competition, in which elephants are expected to act according to the instructions of the mahout, was held. Accordingly, elephants saluted the audience, stood on three legs, slept and squatted. The event reflects the hard work of mahouts and kavadis in disciplining the wild. Prakruti, the elephant which followed the mahout’s instructions instantly, was adjudged the best, followed by Netra and Mayura.

Tricks performed by the elephants were also a treat to watch. While Prakruti took Shivagange for a walk, the two escorted Netra with their trunks mutually interlocked. Netra and Prakruti also played hopscotch. Elephants moving in a row and amruta sinchana, the event in which they sprayed water from their trunks, were highlights of the event. Sakrebailu elephants proved their expertise in soccer and played volleyball with their trunks.

Banana and sugarcane eating competitions were also held. Sugarcane seemed to be a rare treat for Shiva who gobbled up all the pieces at once.

Netravati, the most obedient of all, was declared the overall champion of the event while Prakruti stood second, and Sagar, the embodiment of dignity and grace, came third. Prakruti, bubbling with enthusiasm, was the cynosure of all eyes.

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